Scott Wiener has a long list of New Year’s resolutions.
After securing a second term with nearly 60 percent of the vote in the November elections, the state senator has busied himself crafting an ambitious agenda for the 2021 legislative session, with housing, drug policy, and criminal justice reform all top of mind. SF Weekly recently sat down (virtually) with Wiener to learn more about his goal for the year.
“We’re challenging the status quo,” Wiener says of his plans to address the climate crisis.
The senator, a member of the Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee, says that clean energy policy will be a priority for his office in the new year, as well as a push to move “away from oil.” He has also expressed support for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order banning fracking in the state by 2024.
Housing, a signature issue of Wiener’s in previous years, will again be a “top focus,” he says. Wiener is co-authoring a bill to extend California’s eviction moratorium — currently set to expire Jan. 31 — through the end of 2021. In addition to pushing for more pandemic-related relief for both tenants and small landlords, Wiener, who chairs the Senate Housing Committee, has joined a group of West Coast legislators in lobbying Congress to provide more funding for rent assistance.
“Housing is very controversial,” Wiener says. “… there are always going to be NIMBYs who push back on everything. We sometimes have disagreements among progressives on housing.”
He says he plans to introduce legislation early next year to make it easier for developers to build “housing of different varieties,” particularly affordable housing.
The senator says he plans to put a spotlight on drug and mental health policy in 2021. In the weeks since the election, he’s already introduced bills doing so, like SB 73, which aims to repeal mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders. A press release from Wiener’s office states that the legislation would help end both “mass incarceration and California’s war on drugs.”
In mid-November, Wiener announced plans to introduce legislation decriminalizing psychedelic drugs, like hallucinogenic mushrooms.
“We need to decriminalize all drugs,” Wiener says, “but this is a step, and psychedelics have been proven to have significant medicinal benefits.”
Legalizing safe-injection sites is another significant component of the senator’s drug policy platform: in early December, he introduced a bill that would allow establishment of the sites in San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles. Wiener tells the Weekly that he plans to push for expanded access to treatment for users of drugs like meth and will work to require insurance companies to cover a wider range of mental health and addiction treatments.
In addition to drug sentencing reform, the senator is setting his sights on the criminal justice system, particularly as it impacts undocumented and immigrant communities: He says he wants to ban the state from transferring incarcerated undocumented immigrants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement after they are released from prison.
Wiener says that his office is planning work related to LGBTQ+ rights but did not specify his goals.
Much of his planned work addresses the convergence of multiple crises Californians are likely to face in 2021. As the ongoing economic recession continues to pummel families’ finances, Wiener hopes to expand access to CalFresh for low-income individuals — who, studies show, are at greater risk for contracting COVID-19. He wants to make it easier for people to register for the program and remain enrolled if they move to a different county.
When asked about the wildfires that have grown in intensity and wrought more destruction to life and property in recent years, Wiener says he wants to buoy Cal Fire’s infrastructure by increasing personnel volume and decreasing its reliance on incarcerated people to fight fires. He also thinks the state should retrofit buildings to make them more fire-resistant and change housing policy to reduce the number of buildings in wildfire-prone areas. Improved forest management, he stresses, is critical, and he hopes the incoming Biden administration will “be a better partner” to the state on the issue.
His thoughts on the future of San Francisco’s shelter-in-place hotel program were mixed.
“I think the hotel room program is a good program,” Wiener says. “It’s stabilized a lot of people, it’s reduced COVID spread, it’s improved conditions on the streets — not everywhere, but in a number of places.”
Still, he doesn’t think the program should be “open ended,” as it’s unclear when funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will dry up. He points instead to the permanent housing programs the city has developed as a better long-term use of resources.
With COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna reaching the Bay Area in higher quantities in the coming months, Wiener says he thinks essential workers living in overcrowded housing — particularly in the Mission and Tenderloin neighborhoods — should be at the front of the line to receive the inoculation. According to the senator, incarcerated people and teachers should also be at the “higher end” of the list, as well.
“We want to get the kids back into the classroom as quickly as possible,” he says.